The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] Election schedules and provocations of North Korea

By Korea Herald

Published : March 7, 2024 - 05:31

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With April's general election about a month away, predictions of more provocations from North Korea have increased. They say that North Korea is carrying out armed provocations to cause social chaos in South Korea ahead of the general election. Although large-scale South Korea-US joint military drills in March or an annulment of military agreement between the South and the North in November last year are direct factors in heightening military tensions, interpretation using the possible connection with the general elections has not decreased. These predictions are embarrassing arguments because it’s not easy to find a substantive basis.

Has North Korea ever provoked to disturb South Korean public sentiment ahead of the general election? There was one time. In April 1996, platoons of North Korean soldiers did show of force in the Panmunjom area with heavy machine guns. It was a provocation aimed at the general election. Still, lots of people believe that some extremists in South Korea's intelligence agency likely touched off the weird situation. Anyway, except for the case in 1996, there have been almost no cases in which North Korea provoked before the general election.

Some analysts might comment on the situation in early 2016. At that time, North Korea conducted a nuclear test in January and launched a satellite in February. It claims that the North made provocation at that time because of a general election in April. However, the interpretation is far from the reality.

The North's provocations in early 2016 were an extension of its diplomatic issue at Tiananmen Square in September 2015. The Tiananmen Diplomacy refers to President Park Geun-hye's visit to Beijing, where she watched a military parade marking the anniversary of China's victory over imperial Japan. At the time, she explained the South Korean government's position on reunifying the two Koreas to the President of China, Xi Jinping. She requested China's support and cooperation, and President Xi reportedly responded positively.

The problem is that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was furious about the Chinese position and regarded it as a betrayal against its ally, North Korea. North and China clashed fiercely in December of the same year in the wake of the Moranbong Band's scheduled concert in Beijing. Among the performance items of the band was praise for Kim for developing nuclear weapons and missiles, which China opposed. The band canceled the concert and returned to the North.

Kim, who is dissatisfied with China's high-handed attitude, conducted its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6, 2016. North Korea added another provocation of launching a satellite on Feb. 7, which was banned under UN Security Council resolutions.

The UN Security Council convened and adopted new sanctions resolution against North Korea. South Korean President Park decided to close the Kaesong Industrial Complex and ordered a review for the possible THAAD deployment. Considering the timeline of that situation, North Korea's provocation was a response to South Korea's diplomacy regardless of the schedule for the general election, an expression of its dissatisfaction with China, and a showing off of its resistance to the US.

Some analysts say that North Korea's provocation in the first half of 2020 was an armed protest ahead of the April general election again. This is also far from true. Instead, it is more accurate to see it as a byproduct of inter-Korean relations, whose relationship has deteriorated dramatically since the collapse of the US-North Korea summit in February 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam.

After the Hanoi summit broke down, North Korea grumbled that South Korean President Moon Jae-in should show some sign that he was sorry for the summit's failure. However, no one in South Korea paid attention to Kim's message. In April, Kim directly expressed his discontent, saying that Moon should stop acting as a meddlesome mediator, and in August, he poured out vulgar comments about Moon, including the expression "boiled head of a cow."

South Korea also expressed strong displeasure at these insults, including in a small arms parade on Oct. 1, the F-35 fighter jet, which North Korea deeply hates, on Armed Forces Day. The exchange of condemnations continued until the explosion of an inter-Korean liaison office building by the North in Kaesong in June 2020. Although the April general election and North Korea's provocations overlap, causal relations cannot explain it.

The most essential thing in the process of resolving conflicts and disputes between countries is to make an accurate diagnosis of the situation. If the diagnosis is not correct, no effective prescription can be created. Treatment with an incorrect prescription is not an act of saving people but rather an act of killing people.

Foreign policy areas are no different. If the background of North Korea's provocation is not identified, no effective countermeasure can be devised. It is appropriate to see the North's provocation as a strategic move to make its nuclear weapons a fait accompli and lift economic sanctions and partly as expressions of the supreme leader's discontent or determination. It might be an accurate prescription to explain through dialogue with Chairman Kim that there are reasonable alternatives and, at the same time, to constantly clarify that sanctions are applied to the violations of international order with the cooperation of the US and China.

Given North Korea's provocations, strengthening South Korea-US military exercises is inevitable. However, excessive advertising of the combined military exercise schedule will likely provoke North Korea, triggering more severe provocations and relying more on nuclear weapons. In particular, it embarrasses China and weakens the international sanctions regime against North Korea. After all, it does not help resolve the North Korean nuclear issue but has many side effects. We hope for an intelligent North Korean policy so that it does not lead to misdiagnosis, wrong prescriptions, and treatment failures.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at the Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.